If you’re new to the world of hill walking, you may have come across the term ‘the Wainwrights’ and wondered exactly what they are. They are a collection of fells or mountains in the Lake District that were included in a series of guidebooks written by accountant-cum cartographer and author Alfred Wainwright.
There are 214 fells described in detail across seven volumes of his Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, published between 1955 and 1966. They were the definitive guide to the Lake District and, despite their age, they are still considered authoritative today. The full collection can be picked up for as little as £20.
The Wainwrights differ from most hill lists as there is no scientific basis behind them. They are simply the fells that Wainwright liked the most and wanted to share with the world. You will not find more passionate or emotive work anywhere else. They are his ‘love letters’ to the Lakeland fells.
The Pictorial Guides
The guides are famed for their handwritten prose and their exquisite hand-drawn pictures – based on Wainwrights own photographs. Each of the 214 fells has its own chapter describing its character, the surrounding area and, includes several routes to the summit.
The guides split the Lake District into seven distinct areas bordered by prominent lakes, valleys or passes. The Northern Fells lie north of Keswick and include the famed Blencathra and Skiddaw as well as the quieter areas of Bannerdale and Skiddaw Forest. The western area of the national park is split into two; the Western Fells, home to the mighty Great Gable and Pillar, and the North Western Fells, perhaps one of the most interesting areas of the Lake District crowned by Grasmoor.
The Central Fells stretch from the south of Keswick to Great Langdale and include the enigmatic Langdale Pikes. To the east, separated by Thirlmere, are the Eastern Fells. The Eastern Fells contain some of the most popular mountains; Helvellyn and Fairfield to name just two. The Far Eastern Fells lie east of Haweswater and is one of the quieter areas though the highlights include High Street and the Kentmere fells. Arguably the most exciting area is the Southern Fells, stretching from Great Langdale to Coniston. Here you will find the big ones; Scafell Pike, Scafell, and Bowfell as well as the entire Coniston range.
Why climb the Wainwrights?
A popular challenge is to climb all 214 Wainwright fells which is probably why you are here. Whether you are after a challenge to motivate yourself to Get Outside or just want to explore the nooks and crannies of the Lake District, climbing the Wainwrights is the perfect objective. Unlike the Munros or Marilyns, they occupy a relatively small geographic area and all the walks can be completed in a single day. No need for bothying or bivvying here. Public transport means all but the most remote fells are within reach for those who do not own a car.
No special equipment is needed other than typical walking gear and the variety of fells means there is something for everyone; smaller fells for a short morning or afternoon stroll and the high fells for those full summer day epics. Taking on the Wainwrights will no doubt take you to places you’d never dream of visiting and will give you an appreciation of the breadth of landscapes in the Lake District.
How long will it take?
There’s no correct answer to this question, it entirely depends on your motivation and proximity to the Lake District. The record for completing the Wainwright’s is currently held by Steve Birkinshaw who ran them over a period of six days and 13 hours – the equivalent of two marathons each day. At the other end of the scale, some people will take a lifetime to complete them. Typically it will probably take you a number of years so no need to rush!
Planning to climb 214 fells may seem a little daunting to begin with. However, by breaking them down into a series of circuits, the task becomes much more manageable. There is an excellent book by Stuart Marshall called ‘Walking the Wainwrights’ which details 36 circular walks that cover all the Wainwright peaks. This is a great starting point, however, some of the walks are on the longer side so you may wish to break these up further.
You may wish to concentrate on the fells of a particular book, completing each region in order. Once again, this will help to focus your attention and make the challenge a little less overwhelming.
You will also want something to log your successful summits! The British and Ireland Hills Database (hillbagging.com) is the ideal online tool for keeping track of your endeavours. Otherwise, there are many companies who produce wall-mounted maps which can be used to tick off those completed fells.
As we’ve alluded to; you do not need any special equipment to complete the Wainwrights – Alfred Wainwright was a walker first and foremost. By special equipment, we mean ropes and harnesses. You will, however, need to be safely prepared for a day out in the mountains – especially when you are walking the big ones. The weather can change rapidly and you don’t want to get caught out unprepared. Check out our Essential Hillwalking Kit List to see what we recommend for a day on the fells.
Additionally, to move safely around the mountains need some skills to navigate, especially if (or when!) the weather takes a turn for the worse. You should not rely on a mobile phone for navigation as they can be unreliable and are prone to damage. Learning to use a map and compass can be a life-saving skill. Learn the basics with our Guide to Map Reading and Navigation.
Which are the easiest?
This is a matter of perspective though the easiest Wainwrights tend to be the lower ones or the ones close to the larger Lake District towns. Reaching the summit of Latrigg, for instance, can take as little as 20mins from the car park at the end of Gale Lane. If you are a novice hill walker, here is a list of recommended fells to get you going:
Latrigg from Gale Lane
Rannerdale Knotts from Buttermere village
Hallin Fell from Martindale Church
These fells offer superb views for relatively little effort and, in most cases, are a simple matter of following a path to the summit and back. They should not take you more than an hour or two to complete and are perfect for younger children. Don’t forget your map though!
The Difficult Ones
It’s safe to say that the high fells are more challenging due to their height, the requirement for good navigational skills and the need for some individual fitness. They are, however, popular and a number of well-worn paths snake to the summits. In our opinion, the trickiest Wainwrights are the ones that are least accessible or the ones with very steep ascents. Here’s our list of challenging fells:
Yewbarrow (thanks to its steep, sometimes exposed approaches)
Haycock and Caw Fell (due to their remoteness)
Steeple (has a very short, quite exposed arete to negotiate)
Helm Crag (the ‘true’ summit of this fell is an outcrop called the Howitzer, requiring a short, challenging scramble. Even Wainwright didn’t get up this one! If you manage to climb this you’ll have one over the great man himself)
That should be enough information to get you started. Why not explore our ‘Walk up’ series for some more inspiration? These cover some of the most popular routes up the most important Lake District fells including Scafell Pike, Blencathra, Great Gable and Helvellyn.